Labor History, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2003
Sentinels for New South Industry: Booker T. Washington, Industrial Accommodation and Black Workers in the Jim Crow South*
In 1912, “race war” broke out in Cuba. The island’s hard-won independence, formally attained in 1902, had failed to deliver the “nation for all” that nationalist visionary Jose Marti and his largely black and mulatto following had aspired to. Instead white Cuban elites attempted to emulate the standards of “civilization” laid down by their North American counterparts, laying the foundations for a society in which blacks and mulattoes remained second-class citizens. Afro-Cuban war veterans, outraged at the government’s failure to reward their sacrifices over many years, organized the Partido Independiente de Color, demanded their “rightful share” to the fruits of independence, and in 1912 led an armed revolt that was brutally suppressed by the US-backed government, at a cost of more than 3000 lives.1
As their descendants had for generations before them, American Southerners on both sides of the color line paid careful attention to the events unfolding in the Caribbean, refracting their significance through the prism of their own distinctive approach to the “race problem.” Startled at what seemed to them a costly failure in racial control, white Southerners congratulated themselves on having eliminated the volatility intrinsic in bi-racial coexistence by anchoring racial difference in an elaborate system of formal segregation: its absence in Cuba seemed a perilous defect.
A more remarkable evaluation of the Cuban events came from Booker T. Washing- ton,2 who emerged as the dominant figure in African American politics nearly two
* The author wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the British Academy, the Academic Council at Queen’s University Belfast, and the John Hope Franklin Collection of African and African-American Documentation at Duke University for funding the research that made this article possible. He would also like to thank Jorge Giavonnetti for bibliographic advice on the 1912 revolt in Cuba and Eric Arnesen, Tera W. Hunter and Peter Rachleff for critical comments on an earlier draft of this article. None of them are responsible for the interpretation advanced above.
1 The most authoritative account of the events appears in Aline Helg, “Our Rightful Share”: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). See also Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), Louis A. Perez, Jr., “Politics, Peasants, and People of Color: The 1912 ‘Race War’ in Cuba Reconsidered,” Hispanic American Historical Review 66, 3 (1986), 509–539.
2 In 1898 Washington entered an arrangement with the US military allowing matriculation of Cuban and Puerto Rican students at Tuskegee Institute. Some among them led a series of strikes and mini-rebellions at Tuskegee over complaints about food and prohibitions against their playing baseball on Sundays. “Largely because of the Latin students,” notes Harlan, “the school had to construct a guardhouse. The Cubans refused to eat … and struck against their work. When a teacher and a student tried to put [one of the leaders] in jail, his compatriots jumped them, but they succeeded in making the arrest. Guns were flourished before order was restored.” Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901 (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 283.
ISSN 0023-656X print/ISSN 1469-9702 online/03/030337-21 2003 Brian Kelly DOI: 10.1080/002365603200012955
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decades earlier when, during the 1895 Atlanta Exposition, he issued a public call for reconciliation based on black accommodation to the Southern status quo. In an article addressed to the northern, white readership of The Continent entitled “Negro Leaders Have Kept Racial Peace,” Washington expounded on why African Americans, with “much more reason for a resort to physical violence” than their Cuban counterparts, had held back from a resort to “rebellion or insurrection.” “The answer is simple,” he explained. After emancipation, “wise … self-sacrificing” whites had undertaken the “training of negro leaders (‘teachers and ministers … doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, farmers, businessmen or politicians’) who were placed … as sentinels in every negro community in the South” and who “kept a steady hand on the masses of the colored people.” Exalted by a relieved white America as the authentic embodiment of dimin- ished black aspirations, Washington had often pointed out to whites the utility of conservative leadership in sustaining racial detente, but seldom had he offered such an unguarded appraisal of its role in containing black insurgency.3
Historians have been reluctant to accept Washington’s word that one essential function of post-Reconstruction race leadership had been to reconcile the black “masses” to their place in the segregated South. One prominent recent study has credited him instead with “la[ying] the groundwork for the militant confrontation of the Civil Rights Movement,” while a second describes Washington as a “radical and effective [advocate] of African-American power.”4 Others understate the tensions that developed between race leaders and black workers, stressing the contribution of elite-led “uplift” to institution-building in the black community, locating within such work an important sphere of agency, and asserting its ostensible cross-class appeal. But this mildly exuberant tone is difficult to square with the meager gains secured for ordinary black Southerners in the Age of Washington, and obscures the regressive thrust at the heart of the accommodationist project.5 The considerable advances made over the past generation in reconstructing black Southerners’ experience under Jim Crow, evident in a vibrant and expanding historical literature, are undermined by a continuing reluctance to examine tensions within the black “community.” A historio- graphical lineage that began, appropriately, with recognition of the need for nuanced scholarship has delivered, over time, a mostly laudatory evaluation that emphasizes acommodationism’s subversive capacity6 but prevaricates in delineating its relationship with Southern white elites or its complicity in shoring up the system under which black workers languished.
This article attempts to lay the groundwork for a reevaluation of elite-led racial uplift
3 Booker T. Washington, “Negro Leaders Have Kept Racial Peace,” The Continent (Chicago) 43 (October 3, 1912), 1382, in Booker T. Washington Papers (hereafter BTW Papers), ed. Harlan, vol. 11 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 33–34.
4 Adam Fairclough, Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890–2000 (New York: Penguin, 2001), xiii. 5 For general remarks about the strengths and weaknesses of this scholarship as it applies to the
turn-of-the-century urban South, see my “Racial Uplift and Racial Solidarity in Early Twentieth-Century Birmingham: A Review of Lynne B. Feldman’s ‘A Sense of Place’,” online at: http://h-net.msu.edu/ cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx � vx&list � h-labor&month � 0107&week � e (July 2001).
6 Virtually all assessments of Washington, including my own, accept the conclusion reached in early studies by Louis Harlan and August Meier that he combined public submission to white supremacy with surreptitious attempts to challenge specific elements of the Southern racial order. Harlan writes that Washington “clandestinely financed and directed a number of court suits challenging the grandfather clause, denial of jury service to blacks, Jim Crow service in transportation, and peonage. Thus, he paradoxically attacked the racial settlement he publicly accepted.” See Harlan, Washington: Making of a Black Leader, preface, n.p. See also Meier, Negro Thought in America, 110–114.
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by excavating the relationship between Washington-style accommodation and white elite designs for the industrializing South. It aims to demonstrate that the “race problem” extant at the New South during the traumatic years of its early industrial development was, to a far greater extent than most historians have acknowledged, rooted in the antagonism between propertied white elites committed to industrial transformation and a mostly propertyless black working class that would provide the fodder for the remaking of the South. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s compelling proposition that Jim Crow can best be understood as “racial capitalism”—“a system that combined de jure segregation with hyperexploitation of black and white labor”—suggests that black workers belong at the very center of any meaningful understanding of the period, and not relegated to the margins or written off as an inert mass carried along under the protective wing of black petit bourgeois leadership, well-intentioned or otherwise.7
A wide range of sources confirm that black labor was the lever with which New South modernizers hoped to lift their region out of the lethargy to which plantation slavery had condemned it. Industrial promoters agreed that “cheap, docile, black labor”8 was the key to the region’s future, an axiom they articulated frequently and in remarkably explicit terms. Booker T. Washington’s significance—and the function of accommo- dation more generally—can best be understood in terms of the compatibility of his formula for race progress with elite requirements for a tractable workforce. Historians working from a “race relations” framework continue to gauge the efficacy of Washing- ton’s strategy by drawing up a balance sheet of losses and gains for the race as a whole, and then speculating about whether the “protest” strategies advocated by rivals W. E. B. DuBois or William Monroe Trotter might have delivered more. But like Washing- ton’s admirers, they assume a “unitary racial experience” under Jim Cow which, as Judith Stein has suggested, “denies the historical existence of those black who lost both to Booker T. Washington and the dominant [white] classes in the age of segregation.”9
* * *
The “new men” brought to power in the South after the overthrow of Reconstruction— industry-oriented individuals like Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady, his co-thinker at the Manufacturers’ Record Richard H. Edmonds, lumber baron John Henry Kirby and his counterparts in coal and iron, Alabama’s Henry DeBardeleben and Tennessee’s A. S. C. Colyar—exhibited a contradictory, almost schizophrenic, attitude toward the mass of black laborers in their midst. None of them entertained the notion that freed men or women should enjoy the same rights of citizenship as their white neighbors, and few showed any restraint in cataloguing the Negro’s deficiencies, invariably ascribed to innate racial characteristics. While they refrained, on most occasions, from publicly indulging in the crass style of race-baiting associated with the demagogues of the age, New South industrial elites were hardly paragons of racial egalitarianism. At best they exhibited a paternalistic attitude toward the “inferior” race; confronted with a challenge to their ascendancy they proved themselves as adept at playing the race card as the most extreme white “radicals.”
Simultaneously, however, the modernizers recognized black labor as a vital asset in
7 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Mobilizing Memory: Broadening Our View of the Civil Rights Movement,” The Chronicle Review, July 27, 2001, online at: http: //www.chronicle.com.
8 George Gordon Crawford, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad executive, cited in George R. Leighton, Five Cities: the Story of Their Youth and Old Age (New York: Ayer, 1998), 129.
9 Judith Stein, “Black and White Burdens: Review of Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., ‘Black Americans and the White Man’s Burden, 1898–1903’,” Reviews in American History, March 1976, 89.
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the New South’s industrial renovation. Frustrated at times by what they regarded as the “undependability” of black labor, industrialists were nevertheless unanimous in ac- knowledging that it constituted one of the cornerstones in constructing a prosperous future. “The greatest resource of the South,” a typical editorial in the Manufacturer’s Record asserted in 1893, “is the enormous supply of cheap colored labor.” Opportunity “for the masses of negroes” lay in transforming the region’s untapped natural endow- ment into profits. “Its vast mineral wealth is to be uncovered, millions of feet of timber are to be cut, thousands of miles of railroad are to be constructed[, and] great drainage projects are to be carried through … with all the incubuses placed upon them, the negroes are a vital factor in Southern advancement,” they insisted. “Today the South could not do without them for a week.”10
While it may be true, as some have argued, that black workers provided the most fertile ground in which Southern trade unionism could sink its roots in the 1950s,11 the opposite seems to have been the case in the period before World War I. If we take white employers at their word, the most attractive qualities manifested by black labor in the post-Reconstruction period were its vulnerability and lack of a disposition for collective organization. “As a laborer [the black worker] has no equal for patient industry and mule-like endurance,” a South Carolinian wrote in 1890, articulating a nearly universal theme. The ex-slave, “by the blessings of freedom, is now willing to toil from year’s end to year’s end for about one-half of the [former costs] which [we] once paid for the fruits of his labor. This same man is the iron mine laborer, the furnaceman and the mill man of the future that will yet aid his white friends of the South to take the lead in the cheapest production on the continent.”12
With all its limitations, the Populist revolt provided the last large-scale opportunity for black plebeian self-assertion before World War I.13 While the years after its decline in 1896 would be punctuated by intermittent, localized confrontation between orga- nized black workers and their employers,14 the possibility that these could feed into a wider challenge to the status quo—as they had during the upheaval accompanying Reconstruction—had been dramatically weakened. Populism’s defeat and the wave of reaction accompanying it hastened the disintegration of the collectivist impulse that had infused black politics since emancipation, and disfranchisement eviscerated the political
10 “The Negro as a Mill Hand,” Manufacturer’s Record, September 22, 1893. 11 See Michael K. Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1993), 214–277. Honey’s argument is sharply challenged by Alan Draper in Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968 (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1994), 10–13.
12 “Southern Bessemer Ores,” Manufacturers’ Record, October 25, 1890. 13 In recent years a rich historical literature has documented the centrality of labor militancy as a key
component of post-Reconstruction black activism. See, for example, Berlin et al., Freedom: a Documentary History of Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), particularly Series 1, vols. 2 and 3, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor. Historians disagree on whether the Populists ever actually challenged white supremacy. More important here, however, is the question of whether Populism was perceived by the Southern ruling class as a threat to the racial order. About this issue, it would seem there can be little debate.
14 For useful surveys of black labor activism in the Jim Crow South, see Paul B. Worthman and James R. Green, “Black Workers in the News South, 1865–1915,” in Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience, ed. Huggins, vol. 2 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971); Eric Arnesen, “Following the Color Line of Labor: Black Workers and the Labor Movement before 1930,” Radical History Review 55 (1993), 53–87; Rick Halpern, “Organized Labor, Black Workers, and the Twentieth-Century South: The Emerging Revision,” in Race and Class in the American South since 1890, ed. Stokes and Halpern (Oxford: Berg, 1994), 43–76; Daniel Letwin, “Labor Relations in the Industrializing South,” in A Companion to the American South, ed. John Boles (London: Blackwell, 2001), 424–443.
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terrain upon which that impulse could be expressed. Among the mass of black agricultural workers and the growing numbers abandoning the Cotton Belt for the mines, mills, and timber camps of the New South, the deteriorating racial climate taxed whatever reserves of optimism and cohesion remained. From the perspective of South- ern employers, Jim Crow’s utility in anchoring the vulnerability of black workers and sustaining the low-wage regime they deemed essential to regional development was among its most attractive features.
In the new era commencing with the elites’ triumph over the agrarian challenge in the mid-1890s, leading proponents of Southern industrialization labored systematically to revive the paternalist rapport their agrarian forebears had formerly enjoyed with the black masses. Black workers anxious to leave behind the stifling despotism of plantation life represented to men of the New South a ready-made army of cheap menial laborers, who could not only be profitably deployed in the extractive industries emerging throughout the region but, it was assumed, might potentially operate as a labor reserve indispensable for restraining the inflated expectations of working-class whites. By 1910 some 1.2 million African Americans labored on the nation’s railroads and in its factories and mines, an overwhelming majority of them in the South.
The revival of this elite-led racial paternalism shaped, in profound ways, the new orientation of black politics articulated by Washington in his speech before the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. The “Age of Washington” commenced with the demise of Populism, and coincided precisely with the period described by W. Rayford Logan as the “nadir” in African American history. The pact announced by Washington in 1895 has been evaluated almost exclusively in racial terms—as a declaration of the surrender of black political aspirations and the postponement of the struggle for civil equality. But an exclusive focus on its racial import obscures the degree to which “compromise” reflected a growing, class-based rapprochement between elites on both sides of the color line. Washington’s intervention might be more meaningfully understood as the inauguration of a partnership between New South white elites and their counterparts in the increas- ingly conservative black middle class, now convinced of the futility of political agitation and increasingly enamored with the Gospel of Wealth. The real losers in this pact were not black Southerners generally, but more specifically the black working classes.
In articulating the basis for elite collaboration, Washington gave voice to a tendency that had been coalescing among black conservatives since the overthrow of Reconstruc- tion and which had been tempered in the confrontation with Populism. African Americans who, following emancipation, had linked their fortunes to those of their ex-masters in the Democratic Party had evolved from being an exotic, inconsequential and widely detested fringe on the margins of the black community to one which, aided by the patronage of white elites, grew in numbers and self-confidence in the 1890s.15
15 Judith Stein, “ ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others’: The Political Economy of Racism in the United States,” Science and Society 38 (1974–75), 434–441; Meier, Negro Thought in America, 38–39. On black Democrats, Else Barkley Brown writes (123–124) that “[b]lack men and women … throughout the South, initiated sanctions against those black men perceived as violating the collective good by supporting Conservative forces. Black Democrats were subjected to the severest exclusion: disciplined within or quite often expelled from their churches and mutual benefit societies; denied board and lodging with black families.” Later, as “formal political gains … began to recede and economic promise became less certain … political struggles over relationships between the working-class and the newly emergent middle-class, between men and women, between literate and non-literate, increasingly became issues” in Richmond (130). See Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Public Culture 7 (1994), 107–146. See also Peter Kolchin, First Freedom: The Responses of Alabama’s Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction
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Within the Republican Party, the radicalized freedmen and women who had consti- tuted the phalanx of the Union Leagues during Reconstruction had experienced defeat after defeat—initially at the hands of the Klan and white paramilitaries, but later by their own “lily-white” Republican leadership. Many who remained prominent in the party at the end of the 1880s had long since jettisoned the plebeian manifest at the high tide of Radical Reconstruction; their numbers consisted increasingly of place-seekers and rising elites, who “found themselves tied inextricably to the lot of the black masses even when they no longer articulated their interests.”16
Paradoxically, the formalization of the color line punished black workers even as it promoted the ascendancy of a black entrepreneurial elite within the confines of the ghetto,17 widening this social gulf even further. The Populist challenge had divided the black middle class, rekindling for a minority the vision they had entertained before Redemption, but its main effect was to inject a sense of urgency into the attempts by white planters and rising industrial elites to solidify their alliance with black conserva- tives. And this emerging milieu did not leave them wanting.
It was their evolving collaboration with emerging race leaders that permitted New South propagandist Henry Grady to state with confidence, amidst the early rumblings of the agrarian revolt in 1887, that he and his counterparts across the region had “no fear” of black “domination.” “Already we are attaching to us the best element of [the black] race,” he told an audience at Texas, “and as we proceed our alliance will broaden.”18 Washington and others did not merely resign themselves, reluctantly, to weathering hard times in partnership with white elites; they enthusiastically shared the logic underpinning Grady’s program. Louis Harlan, who can hardly be accused of projecting a hypercritical image of Washington, described him candidly as “a black counterpart of Grady,” insisting that “it was not merely that Washington was circum- spect, that the mask he turned to Southern whites was a mirror. Washington not only seemed to agree with whites who were racially moderate and economically conservative; he actually did agree with them” (emphasis in original).19 No surprise then that Atlanta
Footnote 15 Continued
(Westport: Greenwood, 1972), 132, and the documents in Herbert Aptheker, A Documentary History of the Negro in the United States, vol. 1 (New York: Citadel, 1951), 565–568, 576–579 and Edmund L. Drago, Hurrah for Hampton!: Black Red Shirts in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998), 57–94. August Meier writes that while initially “those who [stood] with the Democrats tended to be the old servant class or successful, conservative businessmen,” the composition of Democratic supporters changed as Southern blacks dejected by the desertion of their cause by Republicans began to tactically divide their votes. See Meier, “The Negro and the Democratic Party, 1875–1915,” Phylon 17 (1956), 2, 173–191 (quote from 174).
16 Stein, “ ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington’,” 432. 17 August Meier, “Negro Class Structure in the Age of Booker T. Washington,” Phylon 23 (1962), 258.
Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) writes that the “Negro elite—professional men, lawyers, or small, financially ambitious merchants … were quite eager to promote the concept of ‘separate but equal’. Thus in only ten years after the Emancipation, there was already a great reaction setting in. All the legal chicanery and physical suppression the South used to put the Negro back in his place was, in effect, aided and abetted by a great many so-called Negro leaders.” Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Trade, 1963), 53.
18 Henry W. Grady, The New South and Other Addresses (New York: Maynard, Merrill & Co., 1904), 53. Oliver Cromwell Cox writes that “[t]he Southern oligarchy proposed to use the best Negroes, the most gifted of them, to forestall the political aspirations of their own people.” Cox, “Leadership Among Negroes in the United States,” in Studies in Leadership: Leadership and Democratic Action, ed. Alvin W. Gouldner (New York: Russell and Russell, 1950), 238.
19 Harlan (ed.), BTW Papers, vol. 2, 321; Harlan, Washington: Making of a Black Leader, 166.
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Constitution editor Clark Howell, after noting that there had been some “initial opposition” among white directors of the 1895 Exposition to permitting a Negro to share the podium, insisted that Washington’s speech amounted to a “full vindication” of Grady’s views, and that “there was not a line in the address which would have been changed even by the most sensitive of those who thought the invitation to be imprudent.”20
In the context of this developing affinity between elites on either side of the color line it was unremarkable that, in his appeal to white Southern employers to “cast down your buckets where you are,” Washington stressed the tractability of black labor in terms aimed at alleviating concerns being expressed in the industrial press. “Cast your buckets among those people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, [built] your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the earth” (emphasis added). Confronted several years later with a growing clamor for immigrant labor to remove solve the problem of black “inefficiency,” he stressed the same qualities: “We have never disturbed the country by riots, strikes, or lockouts,” he reminded whites. “Ours has been a peaceful, faithful service.” Or again, in an article which appeared in the Southern States Farm Magazine in 1898: “The negro is not given to strikes and lockouts. He believes in letting each individual be free to work where and for whom he pleases,” a declaration that complimented perfectly the open-shop policy upheld by Southern industry. “He has the physical strength to endure hard labor, and he is not ashamed or afraid to work.”21
Washington’s affirmation of black working-class passivity should be understood not merely as a rhetorical mask with which he sought to cultivate the support of influential whites. Nor was his an idiosyncratic position out of step with the thinking of black elites elsewhere in the South. While some in that milieu resented the obsequiousness that pervaded so much of Washington’s public posturing, in general they were united in acquiescing to white elite prerogatives, and the subordination of labor to capital formed an essential element of that outlook in Gilded Age America. The outlook popularized by Washington resonated in the statements of numerous black ministers, educators, and newspaper editors. There remained, to be sure, small corners of community life outside the grip of the accommodationists, but few advocates of racial uplift contem- plated a fundamental challenge to the existing social order.
If Populism at its zenith had broached the possibility of a coalition of lower-class blacks and whites, the …